By Changing Sound, Band Falls Short
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 13, 2013 07:09
Speaking about his band’s upcoming self-titled album, MGMT co-vocalist and keyboard player Ben Goldwasser has said, “We’re not trying to make music that everyone understands the first time they hear it.” That isn’t to say that the band can’t be catchy — the instantly infectious “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel” are what made them so big in the first place — but with MGMT, the band tries too hard not to be.
2010’s Congratulations was one of the year’s best albums, but it lacked a track like “Kids” that could propel it commercially, causing it to sell just a quarter of the copies of the band’s debut. But MGMT, a band aware it had stumbled onto success, has never really cared about continuing it, and MGMT isn’t a reaction to Congratulations, but an extension of it. Where they’ve ended up, however, is a place where necessary things like “hooks” and “structure” are buried under an impenetrable wall of pure psychedelic texture.
The texture is, admittedly, spectacular. Producer Dave Fridmann, who worked on the band’s previous two albums, finally gives MGMT the treatment he’s used with the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala, filling the sonic landscape to the brim with synthesizers and noise; the band’s flirtation with a guitar-based sound on Congratulations is nowhere to be found. In addition, the drums are impeccable, with an enormity that nearly brings order to the chaos around them.
But the whole thing often feels labored and cluttered, especially when coupled with the vocals, which, in true psychedelic fashion, never go beyond the energy level of someone just waking up from a nap. On MGMT, everything is texture, and anything that approaches catchiness is smothered and drowned in the song around it. Congratulations was criticized for not having a real single, but even the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” had more of an essence of pop than anything found on MGMT. “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” the slightest and most archetypically pop-y song on the album, seems to be buried by the arrangement; every acoustic guitar strum that emerges from the muck is pushed back down again by an arrhythmic synthesizer. It’s as if the band was embarrassed by the conventional chord changes and melody and tried their best to force the listener to ignore it.
The lyrics are often unintelligible, with lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice rarely going above a hushed murmur. While some lines often veer into cliche — there’s quite a bit about floating — the majority of the lyrics fit well enough into the mood, especially those of “I Love You Too, Death,” which sounds like a song Animal Collective would make if they were recording on a cloud.
MGMT is designed to be an album that is meant to be experienced rather than just listened to; it includes a video called “The Optimizer” that provides accompanying optical stimulation. This doesn’t excuse the formlessness and clutter that define the album. With MGMT, the band has stepped completely away from the pop of Oracular Spectacular and the psych-rock of Congratulations, but, with it, the band may have tripped too deep down the rabbit hole.